Gluten is a hot topic these days, and rightfully so. Research has shown that the large majority of our health is determined by our environment, meaning that the things we do every day has the biggest impact on our health. Our environment includes things such as our sleep schedule, stress levels, exercise, and diet. The importance of these cannot be overstated, in fact- our food choices may have the biggest impact of all of these on our health.
Food is not just calories to fuel the body; food is information for our genes. Good quality food choices can turn on protective genes and poor food choices can turn on harmful genes. Quite simply, the food we eat either builds us up or breaks us down. One food, in particular, has quite the history of causing damage in the human body. I’m of course talking about gluten. From his famous book, Grain Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter states that,
“Gluten sensitivity represents one of the greatest and most under-recognized health threats to humanity.”
Have your attention yet?
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found mainly in barley, oats, rye, spelt, and wheat. It is a sticky substance that holds food products together. When you think of a fluffy pastry- gluten is the glue that holds it together so it can be light and fluffy. While in most processed foods such as cookies, cakes, crackers, bread, pasta, and pizza, gluten can also be hidden in foods such as soy sauce, soups, and certain processed meats. Gluten can also be hidden in personal care products like shampoo, body wash, and lipstick. Replacing these things with gluten free foods, and gluten free products can make a vast difference in your health.
Why is Gluten a Problem?
Many say, “We’ve been eating gluten for thousands of years, why is it a problem now?” Well, our food supply has changed more in the last 50 years than it has in the previous 10,000 years.
1.With the advent of hybridization, genetic modification, and widespread use of herbicides and insecticides, the food we eat today has little resemblance to the food of centuries ago, particularly in the United States.
2.Grains are Inflammatory due to the fact that they are inherently stubborn when breaking down in the gut. In fact, certain grains contain anti-nutrients, causing the body to use up more energy to break down and digest the food than the body receives from the food. According to Dr. William Davis, who authored the book Wheat Belly,
“Two slices of bread made with whole-wheat flour raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar and higher than many candy bars.”
3.The content of gluten in foods today is much higher than in years past. Estimates vary, but fall somewhere between an increase in 50%, up to a ten-fold increase in the gluten content today compared to 50 years ago! We are ingesting substantially larger amounts of this protein, leading to overexposure. So all these “recent” gluten allergies are not really that shocking when you think about it.
We are not what we eat; rather, we are what we eat, digest, absorb , and assimilate. This is a long process that takes quite a bit of energy and hard work by our digestive system. A breakdown at any step can lead to loss of nutrients, inflammation, immune system activation, gas and bloating, constipation, diarrhea, brain fog, or fatigue. Our food must be fully broken down in order to be utilized by our cells for energy. This poses a problem for foods like gluten, and is why at Core Health we recommend a gluten free diet.
Gluten’s protein structure is large and difficult to break down. Dr. Tom Osborn describes gluten like a brick wall: the bricks must be taken off and shuttled into the bloodstream 1 by 1. You take off the mortar, pull off the brick, and away you go. Because gluten is so hard to break down, one may only break off a chunk of 10 or 20 bricks at a time, not a single one. When a large protein structure enters the bloodstream where it should not be, the immune system sends an alarm all over the body, putting everyone on high alert that the body is under attack. This can be seen as inflammation.
Research by world-renowned Dr. Fassano and his team, discovered that gluten, even in those without celiac disease, can trigger the release of zonulin; a sort of gate-controller of the cells in our intestine. Once triggered, zonulin opens the spaces of the gut, exposing the immune system. This increased intestinal permeability, or leaky gut, can lead to serious conditions such as autoimmune diseases and many more.
How to know if you’re gluten sensitive?
An estimated 3 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition in which gluten, when eaten, erodes the gastrointestinal lining and stimulates the immune system. However, one can be sensitive to gluten if even they don’t have celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity has been estimated to affect anywhere from 6% to over 81% of Americans, which could mean that almost 100 million Americans could be silently suffering with gluten sensitivity.
In fact , one study from 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at over 30,000 patients over almost 4 decades. What they found was incredible: those with celiac disease had a 39% higher risk of death than their cohorts, those with gluten sensitivity had a 35% increased risk of mortality, and those with intestinal inflammation had a 72% increased risk of mortality! I think that justifies saddling up to a gluten free diet.
So if you ask your doctor, don’t be surprised if you get a blank stare, or even told that, “It’s all in your head.” Testing for celiac disease may include a Tissue Transglutaminase Antibody (tTG-IgA) test. The gold standard for definitive celiac disease is a biopsy; however the large majority of intestinal epithelial cells must be damaged for the biopsy to be positive. Instead of waiting for damage, a Functional Medicine Practitioner may run tests such as a food sensitivity test, which test for the immune system’s response for different foods in the body. However, the simplest and cheapest way to see if gluten is a problem is to eliminate it from your diet for 6-8 weeks. This gives the gut a chance to heal and the immune system a chance to rebalance. After 8 weeks, if introducing gluten gives you any kind of symptoms (joint pain, brain fog, upset stomach, change in bowel movements, irritation, memory loss), then you most likely have a sensitivity to gluten.
Gluten can cause problems in any organ in the body. The most classic gluten related disorder is celiac disease. The rise of celiac disease has been dramatic, with a 400% increase in prevalence over the past 50 years. Many researchers and physicians believe that celiac is still widely under-diagnosed.
Neurologic conditions – The brain is one of the first organs affected by gluten. In fact, conditions likes schizophrenia, epilepsy, and migraines can be worsened by gluten. One study showed that depression and anxiety are much more prevalent in celiac patients. Certain people with ALS have also been reported to have symptoms fade away after going on a gluten-free diet.
Inflammatory conditions–Inflammation is the root of all disease. Gluten is a well-known inflammatory food. Potentially leading to or worsening diabetes, heart disease, fibromyalgia, and many more.
Skin-Since the skin is a reflection of the gut and immune system, skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis can be exacerbated by gluten.
Gluten and brain health
“But gluten is so good!”
This is response I often get when instructing someone to eliminate gluten from their diet. Not only is gluten a staple in our diets, but it can be physically addicting. There is a reason that gluten can be hard to give up: and it has to do with the way it makes us feel. Once gluten enters the brain, it binds to the brains morphine receptors to produce a sensorial high. This is the same receptor to which opiate drugs like cocaine and heroin bind, creating a pleasurable and addictive effect. So, after you eat a cake, or a fresh bagel, that feeling you get is the gluten stimulating your brain, and not in a good way. Gluten has been shown to be one of the most potent stimulators of the brain. But don’t worry, if it’s the actual food you’ll miss there are gluten free options for almost everything!
Is it gluten or something else?
For some, other factors may drive gluten intolerance. For instance, in one study, those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity were not affected by gluten once the gastrointestinal bacterial overgrowth was eradicated. This means that it could be an imbalance of gut bacteria or GI infections that can drive the immune response to gluten. Other perpetrators have been identified, such as glyphosate. Glyphosate, or Round-Up, is sprayed on most conventionally raised wheat in America. Glyphosate has been shown to shut down our liver’s ability to detoxify; particularly the cytochrome P-450 enzymes. Glyphosate has also been shown to drastically shift the internal bacterial diversity, possibly causing an immune system shift and altered reaction to gluten. Toxins from water, food, and air can also stimulate the immune system, along with vaccines.
What to do?
If you have any GI symptoms, neurological symptoms, inflammatory symptoms, autoimmune condition, or any disease process, eliminate gluten from your diet for a period of time to see how your body reacts. In order to truly see if you are gluten intolerant, you must eliminate 100% of gluten, not just the majority of gluten. This includes beer, soy sauce, and other hidden sources of gluten. If you are still having symptoms after eliminating gluten, the problem may be the ones listed above. In order to walk you through cleaning up your diet and regaining your health, I would recommend seeing a Functional Medicine practitioner to be your guide. At Core Health, our goal is to find and fix the underlying cause of disease in order to get long-term sustainable results. This allows people to get healthy and stay healthy.